In 2014, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued new regulations for helicopter safety, as discussed previously in a prior issue of this Report. Many of the new, stricter regulations were aimed at addressing the major causes of helicopter emergency medical services (HEMS) crashes. While HEMS owners and operators have been implementing the new safety regulations, one problem persists and continues to claim the lives of pilots and patient passengers – dangerous fuel tanks.
It is a problem that changed David Repsher’s life on July 3, 2015. David was a flight nurse on Air Methods Flight for Life AS350B3e that day and Heliweb.com reported that he accompanied flight paramedic Matt Bowe and pilot Pat Mahaney on a seemingly routine trip aboard the medical helicopter. As the helicopter was departing St. Anthony’s Summit Medical Center in Frisco, Colorado, a problem occurred that sent the aircraft into a tailspin and after struggling to regain control for more than 30 seconds, it crashed to the ground in the hospital’s parking lot.
The incident was captured on surveillance video and showed that the three crew members survived the crash. However, just seconds after the crash, fuel that leaked from the ruptured tanks ignited. All three crew members barely escaped the flames before the helicopter burst into a ball of fire. Pat succumbed to his injuries within a few days of the crash while Matt was released from the hospital soon after the tragic incident. However, Dave was burned on almost 90 percent of his body.
After a year in the hospital, countless surgeries and other procedures and following several near-death experiences, Dave was released from the hospital. While he was still alive and thankful, his ravaged body no longer reflected the athletic outdoorsmen he was before the crash. Months spent in a medically induced coma dropped his weight from 180 pounds to 89. The strong antibiotics he needed to fight off infection destroyed his kidneys, requiring him to have four hours of dialysis five nights a week for the rest of his life or until he can find a donor.
An in-depth investigation into the dangerous fuel tanks by Denver, Colorado, NBC affiliate KUSA 9News explains how the tragic turn in Dave’s life could have been prevented. The KUSA investigative team discovered that despite a decades-old solution, a federal loophole allows even modern helicopters to use fuel tanks with dangerous designs.
In 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War, the U.S. Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory noted that Army Chief of Staff General Harold K. Johnson invested $3 million into research and development of a crashworthy fuel system. By this time in military aviation, military leaders had learned that the fuel tank design was often the culprit for the fiery helicopter crashes that claimed the lives of many pilots. If the plastic encasement was not crashworthy the tanks would crack on impact, releasing fuel. The volatile atmosphere would not need much to spark a hot, fast burning fire, igniting the aircraft into a ball of flames. Industry insiders compare the flimsy design to a large milk jug.
In the 1970s, the U.S. military began incorporating safer alternative fuel tank designs like the Robertson Crashworthy Fuel System or the “Robbie Tank,” according to the National Aviation Hall of Fame. The fuel system was first used in the Army’s Bell UH-1 Huey helicopter in April 1970. The alternative design with its “ballistically tolerant, self-sealing fuel cells” is safer and has been credited with saving thousands of lives. Before the new design, 40 percent of Army pilot fatalities occurred in severe crashes that resulted in fires. Retired Army Colonel Dennis Shanahan told KUSA that by 1976, when he began researching the issue, every Army helicopter was equipped with newer and sturdier designed fuel tanks. Yet, helicopter manufacturers continue to resist making the same upgrades on civilian helicopters despite the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and FAA’s efforts.
For example, the Flight for Life AS350 helicopter Dave was riding on when it crashed was manufactured by Airbus in 2014. However, the first AS350 was certified in 1977. A 1994 FAA mandate carved out a loophole to pacify helicopter manufacturers more concerned with their bottom lines than keeping passengers safe. The mandate required all helicopters certified after 1994 to be fitted with a crash-resistant fuel system when it is manufactured. Therefore, while the aircraft was approximately only a year old, legally it was still able to fly with flimsy fuel tanks since it was certified nearly 20 years before the mandate.
The cost of the upgrades, which is the equivalent of one to two percent of the manufacturing cost, is still considered steep by helicopter manufacturers. Industry experts estimate the cost to retrofit an existing helicopter is approximately $100,000 while the current price of the AS350 helicopter, for example, is $1.6 million. And, following a March 2016 Safety Recommendation Report issued by the NTSB, manufacturers still have the option not to retrofit. Although it recommended retrofitting all helicopters, it stopped short of requiring the action.
As of last summer, nearly 84 percent (4,700 of the 5,600) of the helicopters manufactured since the 1994 mandate do not use crash-resistant tanks.
Sources: Jere Beasley Report, KUSA 9News, U.S. Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory, National Aviation Hall of Fame, National Transportation Safety Board